By GABRIELLE KUHN
Who is Mama?
The answer comes a little too quickly in director Andres Muschietti’s latest film “Mama,” which opened Jan. 18 in theaters.
Based on Muschietti’s 2008 short film of the same name and produced by Guillermo del Toro, “Mama” follows two young sisters, Lilly and Victoria, who managed to survive for five years in an abandoned cabin in the woods. When their uncle, Lucas, and his girlfriend, Annabel, take them in, it becomes clear that the girls weren’t alone at all. The film dives into the unsettling mystery of the girls’ miraculous survival in the woods and the illusive, yet destructive, force they simply call “Mama.”
The film is almost entirely supported by actress Jessica Chastain, playing a tattooed rock musician named Annabel. Though her aversion to children is established early in the film, she slowly grows closer to the sisters as she attempts to solve the mystery of their survival in the woods.
When the male characters are easily dispatched by Mama, Chastain’s performance evolves from indifferent babysitter to determined protector, creating a more-than-worthy opponent for the film’s antagonistic ghost.
Child actors Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse deliver truly unsettling performances as sisters struggling to regain their humanity after being left in the woods for so long. Nélisse, as younger sister Lilly, is especially adept at portraying her character’s acquired animalistic tendencies, scuttling in and out of the shadows and growling at her new caretakers.
While the strength of the female characters is compelling, “Mama” suffers by giving the audience too much too soon. Much like del Toro’s 2011 film “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” the mystery of the monster is removed with too much exposition too early. This takes away the audience’s ability to actively engage in the film by piecing clues together until the climactic moment when everything fits into the puzzle.
Within the first half hour of the film, Mama’s secret identity is revealed, and the result is a monster that is easy to understand and easy to mock, as its interactions with the other characters become comedic rather than frightening.
“Mama” settles almost immediately into a predictable pattern, but the audience may enjoy the eeriness of a film set in Virginia. The film takes advantage of recognizable cities like Falls Church and Richmond, and some aspects of “Mama” seem influenced by popular urban legends like that of the Bunny Man Bridge in Clifton, Va., where the cabin in the film was also located. When comparing the story of the Bunny Man with that of “Mama,” the parallels make Muschietti’s ghost more accessible and disturbing.
Far from mysterious, “Mama” is a film for anyone looking for easy scares and easy viewing. The film does not expect much from its audience, making it a simple, creepy distraction rather than a terrifying and active experience. The audience will probably be impressed with the visual effects and the characters, but these are just small details in a story they’ve heard many times before.